Florida isn’t the only state with exciting roadside attractions, although it is the primary home of the alligator-themed tourist stop (the manmade Gatorland and the Alligator Farm; the wild Anhinga Trail in the Everglades). Georgia competes with the low-budget Okefenokee Swamp Park, as hokey an attraction as you are likely to encounter throughout the South’s tourist trail.
What the Okefenokee Swamp Park lacks in activity and presentation it makes up for in informality. This might not seem like a plus, but as a park employee told me, “This isn’t Disney.” Things are pretty lax up there in Georgia, which made for more of an adventure than the common tourist (me) might have expected.
I have made frequent trips to Silver Springs in Ocala, once Florida’s main theme park. Silver Springs has a decent collection of alligators that lumber or snooze around a swampy pond and snap to at feeding time. It also exhibits some of the species Crocodilian, all behind glass. If you want to see an alligator in the wild, you need to take a glass-bottomed boat ride over the springs, and if you’re lucky you might see a gator crapped out on a distant stump, beyond the range of a 3x zoom pocket camera. Silver Springs, as far as I know, is safe for babies and for overly curious German tourists. The most dangerous thing there is a pair of macaws that bite if you get too close.
The Okefenokee Swamp Park takes a different approach. I’d like to nominate the park, which is privately owned, as a premier “Enter at Your Own Risk” attraction. The risk starts right in the parking lot. We will explain that risk in terms of a family of four, which consists of two adults and two children, a girl age six and a boy age ten. As is often the case, the brother and sister wage major wars against one another, competing over toys, candy, and which one is Grandma’s favorite. They fight dirty; a slingshot is under recent confiscation.
Dad drives the rental van into the circular parking lot at Okekefenokee Swamp Park and parks it in a nice space near the entrance gate, next to a big white SUV. The parking lot has eight other vehicles in it and for once Dad doesn’t have to park out in the back forty. As Dad pulls into the space, Mom rolls her eyes and points out that he’s taken a space reserved for the handicapped. She suggests he move the van to the other side of the white SUV. But Dad doesn’t like Mom making this type of important decision, so instead he pulls across the aisle into a space with a lot of shade, which is more to his liking and is better for the vehicle. Leaving the van exposed to the glare of the hot Georgia sun means a cracked dashboard down the road. Mom doesn’t pay attention to this type of detail, especially not with rental cars.
The kids–little Susie, age six, and Davey, age ten–whip open the door and jump out of the van. Across the aisle, Davey sees a nice plastic alligator statue on the sidewalk next to the big white SUV where Mom suggested Dad park. “Oh, BOY!” Davey shouts, and he’s off across the aisle to where the park has cleverly positioned this life-like replica. Susie, somewhat of a scaredy cat, lags five paces behind and picks her nose in doubt.
Dad is still fiddling with a window shade when Mom gets out of the van and sees the plastic statues. “Let me get my camera, kids!” she says, digging through her oversized purse that also contains economy-sized bottles of Tums (Dad’s stomach) and Advil (her migraines) and a knock-off Prada wallet that is ripping at the corners and is missing its logo plaque. This is a fun photo opportunity that will ensure lasting family memories and bring shivers down the spine of Grandpa and Grandma back in Ohio. The replica alligator is even better than the one at Silver Springs, where the kids posed for a similar photo op.
The park has carefully positioned not one, but two, alligators under a small and leafy tree. They are both five feet, six inches long and they have been modeled so that their mouths are wide open. Such attention to detail in their white plastic teeth! One alligator is placed horizontal to the sidewalk and the other is perpendicular to it. “Okay,” says Davy to Susie, “you sit on the head and I’ll sit on the tail!”
Dad gets out of the van after realizing that the sun shade cannot be perfectly positioned no matter how hard he tries. He, too, sees the alligator replicas, but he also sees that the grassy lawn rises out of a small canal. He notices a small sign saying that any animal you encounter might be dangerous. He points this out to Mom while Davey teases Susie by daring her to stick her hand in the plastic alligator’s gaping mouth.
“Hold on there, kids,” Dad says. His critical apparatus tells him that although no amusement park in its right mind would allow real alligators to crawl up to the parking lot, this is Georgia, the state that produced Billy Carter and that has a law forbidding anyone from carrying an ice cream cone in his back pocket on a Sunday. Dad looks a little closer at the replicas and decides that he can’t rule out that the creatures might be real. They aren’t moving or blinking or even giving the appearance of breathing…but they are sitting pretty close to that swampy little canal. “Jesus Christ, Nancy!” he shouts at Mom, “grab those kids now!” He watches as Mom skittles over to the alligator and hauls Davey and Little Susie away from its gleaming incisors.
“Aw, this sucks!” says Davey.
“Davey! Watch your mouth!” Mom shouts, giving Davey her Stare of Death, known throughout their suburban Cincinnati neighborhoood as a particuarly painful method of demise. “That’s bad language and we don’t use bad language in this family. Where did you learn that word?”
Later, the family takes a neat little ride through the swamp in a fiberglass boat with a guide who pulls the craft really close to a small alligator that jumps into the brush when it could just as easily have jumped into the boat to snap at Mom’s feet. This is a lot of fun, and it is even more so when the guide points out the two five foot, six inch alligators posing motionless under a tree in the parking lot. Mom swivels her head around and gives Dad that old Stare of Death: If he hadn’t been fussing with that sunshade then he might have realized that the kids were in imminent danger of being turned into human Fritos as they entered the park on that hot August afternoon.
Okefenokee Swamp Park: *****
What it lacks in presentation, it makes up for in hazard. Highest recommendation. Tomorrow, more swamp stuff.
Mr. B. gets out of the car and sees one of the alligators. The other gator is resting perpendicular to this one, with its tail pointing downhill. When I expressed disbelief that a live alligator would be wandering around the parking lot, Mr. B. suggested that I go sit on it so he could get an “action shot.”
I would be interested in finding out how the Swamp Park can afford insurance, or whether the underwriter realizes that the risk could be cut down by the addition of some cheap fencing along the canal.
Whoops! The view from the boat. There is no fencing along the canal that would stop the gators from crawling up into the lot, something that the tour guide explains is a frequent occurrence: “T’other day we kicked her in the tail to git her to move.”
There isn’t much to do once inside the park. The main attractions are the boat ride and a flatbed train that pulls you through the woods. Near the end of the train ride is a pioneer village. The train stops here for fifteen minutes or so. To enter the village, you step off the train and cross a short wooden boardwalk that sits about three feet above a canal. As we returned from exploring the village, I stepped onto the boardwalk to hear a loud hiss. Below me was this pissed-off gator. Once again, there is no fence to stop gators from roaming this area of the park with free will and abandon. Therefore, one can conclude that a gator might crawl out of the canal and head over to the chicken coop, out of sight until you decide to pop a quarter into a dispenser that sells cracked corn for the birds, at which point it will viciously charge and remove all five of the toes on your right foot.
The guide was excellent. Not only did he maneuver the boat close to gators, he also tore off leaves from a bay tree so we could smell them and dipped a plastic cup into the water so we could admire the tannin staining. Later, as we motored underneath a low bridge that was shored up with sandbags, he expressed disappointment that a four-foot-long cottonmouth that had been resting on a sandbag for the past three days had moseyed along.